Departure is Liberation: All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

On a journey the face of reality changes with the mountains and rivers, with the architecture of the buildings, the layout of the gardens, with the language, the skin colour. And yesterday’s reality burns on in the pain of parting; the day before yesterday’s is a finished episode, never to return; what happened a month ago is a dream, a past life. (“The Steppe”)

Swiss writer, photographer and journalist, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, remains, coming up on eighty years after her untimely death at the age of thirty-four, an enigma. A striking androgynous beauty, she grew up in luxury, and was dressed as a boy by her bisexual mother with whom her relationship remained complex and codependent.  Yet, a certain estrangement with her family began when she befriended Thomas Mann’s children, Erika and Klaus, both of whom were homosexual and politically engaged in anti-fascist movements. They introduced her to an intellectual environment in which she could express her own attraction to women, but they also introduced her to morphine, leading to an addiction that would haunt the rest of her life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Annemarie began to travel, frequently on her own, through the countries of the Middle East, forays that would establish her career as a photojournalist. Over the course of her lifetime she would make return trips to Persia, two trips to America, travels through the Baltic States and up to Moscow, but it is perhaps her journey in a Ford, overland from Geneva to Afghanistan in 1939, with ethnologist and filmmaker Ella Maillart, that has become synonymous with the reputation as an adventurous early  LGBT icon that she has acquired since her relatively recent “rediscovery.”

Ella Maillart’s account of their trip, The Cruel Way, was published in 1947, five years after Schwarzenbach’s death from a brain injury caused by a fall from her bicycle. It is considered a classic of travel literature, but the name of her troubled and transcendent companion was changed to Christina, presumably at the intervention of Annemarie’s family. Although Schwarzenbach herself was a widely published author in her time and did manage to place some of her own Afghan-related material while the Second World War consumed journalistic attention, it was not until a curated selection of her essays and reflections on the experience was published in Germany in 2000, that her own version of their journey was given full voice. All the Roads Are Open: An Afghan Journey 1939 – 1940, published in 2011 by Seagull Books, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid translation, offers a mix of automotive adventure and a lyrical, passionate account of a land and the people that enchanted her.

Although I didn’t realize it when I started reading, All the Roads Are Open is not intended as a single cohesive piece, but as a thematic, roughly chronological assemblage of short pieces written largely as Schwarzenbach made her way by steamship back to Europe from Bombay. As such the “chapters” have a quality not seen in more typical travel writing—these are descriptive passages tied to communities, encounters, and landscapes, and the images which hold most vividly in her memory drive her account and are revisited in several pieces. Thus it is clear which experiences had a profound impact on her. At the same time, there is little about the deterioration of her relationship with Maillart, and no mention of her romantic attractions or resumed drug use (if such material exists at all as much of her work was destroyed by her mother after her death), but a kind of sadness and isolation does rest beneath the surface in some passages. As well, certain described episodes seem to be the possible product of poetic license, but none of this matters; Schwarzenbach leaves us with a memorable, exciting and insightful look at a way of life in Afghanistan that was on the verge of disappearing—in more profound ways that she could have imagined.

The journey, two women travelling alone across a rugged, lonely terrain on roads that could fade into rough tracks, was met with concern and skepticism by many. Schwarzenbach revelled in the independence and their decisions to take the more challenging routes—confident in her ability to make basic repairs on the road or, if needed, secure assistance from the rare individuals in the communities they passed through who might have any experience with cars. Her description of Mount Ararat is moving, her evocation of desolate landscapes graphic, her account of three passages over the Hindu Kush invigorating, and her remembered belief that they never had to worry where they would stay, or how they manage is admirable. She speaks regularly of the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people, be they nomads on the plains, or leaders in towns and villages. It is, again and again, her most cherished memory. Her writing, at times punctuated with a plethora of exclamation marks, is neither idealistic nor romanticized, nor condescending. But, by contrast, she has a few choice comments for some of the British and European expats they live among in Kabul or others who display their prejudice:

Recently, a Swiss man asked me whether the natives’ food was even edible and whether I hadn’t been afraid to sleep in these people’s midst without any protection. The good man really had no idea of Afghan hospitality! Despite the various mentions here of rich, spicy pilaf meals, it must be said that by far not all the inhabitants are able to afford rice and mutton. In the nomads’ tents, there is often nothing but sour milk and a little bread. And in many villages the poor people don’t even have that. In Turkistan, where the gardens and bazaar stalls brim with fruits in the summer, a few months later I saw the relentless winter loom. Then the same landscape was reduced to a wasteland scourged by the icy wind and cloaked in dense swaths of dust, and life in the farmers’ clay huts was quite spartan. But despite these worries, it was at this very time that laughing, waving women met me in the last village on the desert’s edge. (“Two Women Alone”)

One thing that does regularly concern Schwarzenbach, however, is the life of the girls and women in the communities they pass through. As an emancipated woman, the sight of another woman encased from head to toe in some regions is disturbing. But even in other towns and villages, a visible absence of women is noted—they are not seen. However, when invited into the inner garden of one home where their host’s wife and daughters greet them without head coverings, the travellers are able to enjoy a precious interaction afforded to them because they themselves are female. For Schwarzenbach there seems to be great satisfaction in engaging with women and, at the same time, being included with the men on hunting outings, as she is during a period when she works temporarily on an archaeological dig.

Once war is declared, the political climate in the world starts to shift, and Schwarzenbach’s restlessness grows. As the end of 1939 draws closer she prepares  for another departure, anticipating climbing the Khyber Pass in her beloved Ford and passing into India, on the first stage of a journey home. But, even as the steamer pulls out of Bombay, it is evident that Afghanistan has touched her deeply. More than she anticipated, perhaps. One of the most poetic essays, placed at the end of the penultimate section of the book, is “Chehel Sotum,” in which she recalls an experience years earlier at a small palace in the Persian city of Isfahan.

The palace, whose name means “Forty Pillars”—a reference to its twenty pillars and their corresponding reflections in its pool—inspires an Afghan friend to inform her that in his homeland there are forty kinds of grapes:

Overcome by memory and homesickness, he spoke of nothing but the bewitching forty-fold profusion of the grapes of Herat and Kandahar. But though I listened to him and these words about the forty kinds of grapes lingered in my mind, tied to the vision of a promised land, at the time I did not even desire to set foot there. You cannot love what you have not embraced and seen with your own eyes; longing itself is never anything but loneliness surging and bleeding away.

Once she had herself embraced Afghanistan, she understood. One can only imagine how she would be heartbroken by the tragic condition of the country today.

All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

A different kind of time made visible: The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott

Many things are contained within others, and not only in names; in the north there is also a south and a west. The Badrain Jaran desert is indeed to be found within the Gobi desert. But it too contains within it the Takla Makan. And within that again, somewhere there, even if not precisely there and now, lies the untouched centre of the earth, the Desert of Lop.

What is the meaning of home? Is it a place, a person, a state of mind? Some know without question. For others it is an idea that is impossible to hold on to—like a handful of sand, it slips through your fingers. That is the essential spirit that comes through in Raoul Schrott’s delicate, spare novella, The Desert of Lop. Over the course of 101 very short chapters, almost prose poems but not quite, it traces one man’s relationships with three women, the places those relationships take him and the way they became undone. Detail is scant, connections are sketched and filled in with images of sand—dunes, storms, waves of shifting sand.

Schrott, an Austrian poet raised in Tunis, has an interesting background. He studied philology, had a strong interest in Dada and surrealism, has translated and adapted Homer and Gilgamesh in German and speaks a number of languages including Breton, Basque, Corsican and Gaelic. I first encountered him through his extraordinary, sensual unclassifiable work The Sex of the Angels, The Saints in their Heaven, a collaboration with Italian artist Arnold Mario Dall’O which was published by Seagull Books in 2018. Loving it, I immediately sought out any other available works in English. The Desert of Lop, written in the same general time as Sex of the Angels, but published in 2004 (and likewise translated by Karen Leeder), was all I could find and, even then, it took some time to track down a copy.

In simple terms is about a man named Raoul Louper who is living in a village near Alexandria in a simply furnished room. The only described decorations are three objects in the window—a pine cone, a gree-gree (an African charm) and a stone—mementos of three women he once loved. Francesca, Arlette and Elif. Each week he takes the bus to Cairo. He meets with Török, a Hungarian professor with whom he visits geological formations in the area. They share an obsession with sand. Sometimes he joins the professor and the Egyptian woman he lives with for supper. As his story unfolds, they offer a solid counterpoint to Raoul’s restlessness. They have created a home, the very ideal Raoul seems to long for and yet cannot realize. They listen to him, challenge him, and all though his wandering carry him around the globe, it is in their kitchen that his life seems to have any tangible form at all.

His first wife he met near Grosseto on the Mediterranean. Francesca, is a free spirit when he they meet; he is equally ungrounded. Once he has made enough money he leaves for Japan—images from the country punctuate the text but his stay is not described—and when he returns he and Francesca make an effort to make a life together. Without success.

His second wife, Arlette, he meets in a bar in Quimper, a city in Brittany in northwest France. He finds work on a trawler out of the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, across the Atlantic. With his pay he drives across the US to see the western edge of the Pacific and slowly makes his way back to Quimper where, before long, the walls close in on his relationship with Arlette.

In Raoul Louper’s love for Arlette there was always something that was still waiting to change shape. It was like one of the drawings of a Necker cube that one finds in magazines sometimes; its upper edges can only be held in the foreground if one concentrates hard.

He sometimes looked at Arlette absent-mindedly. She did not know what to make of it; she thought when he looked at her it was always with questions.

Raoul avoided giving an answer; there are some things one does not say to a woman if one wants to love her.

The third woman, Elif, comes in to Raoul’s life in Iquito, Peru. Twice abandoned by love, he has accepted a job offer from a man who, having won the lottery, left Naples to set up a hotel in South America. Elif is working as a guide in the National Park, but it turns out that she grew up in Toulon, Raoul’s birthplace, and that they share a birthday. Despite being very different, these unlikely similarities lead, in time, to love. This, is the relationship that will cover the most mileage, first back to France when Elif’s job ends and eventually on a  journey into the desertified heart of China where too much togetherness threatens to push them apart.

Like Sex of the Angels, this is a very sensual work, not just in the remembered intimacies of love, but in the description of sand, deserts and the dunes that rise and fall across the landscape. Scientific descriptions are woven into the overall narrative, at times directly, at other times in the observations of Török or others, but always with such a light, poetic touch, that it never feels contrived. Sand, sculpted by wind and time, is an essential element of this tale, a story that builds layer by layer, but retains a haunting sense of instability and incompleteness.

Is a sand dune ever a finished object?

A dried-up riverbed, or the arms of a delta, drought; a bush, some pebble or other, even a termite mound, sometimes: it’s all the wind needs.

In the wind cornices line up and grow into dunes; they form chains and banks, they take on the shape of an egg, a heart or a star.

The suspended load of the wind; it blows each grain of sand from the windward, hardly higher than a foot or two off the ground, until they are pressed together on the crest, only to slip down the steep face in its lee; it is just the same as with waves.

The Desert of Lop maintains its inherent spaciousness through its narrative voice. The elusive narrator speaks of Raoul in third person, telling his story for him from an uncertain vantage point—sometimes slipping into a scene or adding a comment in first person, as if a companion on some outing or otherwise present—but the exact connection is unknown. Yet the haziness of the boundary is acknowledged: “It is no longer me telling this story. It has long since grown beyond the evenings in Cairo, the table with its chessboard pattern of tiles.”

As spare as it may be, especially for readers unaccustomed to checking a map or slipping down rabbit holes, this is not a directionless narrative. China is on the horizon throughout. Elif and Raoul embark on a journey to Dun Huang, the ancient city on the edge of the Gobi desert with its Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. With their guides they travel through distant provinces—Kamul, Tangut—in the footsteps of Marco Polo, following after Genghis Kahn, moving inexorably toward the extinguishing of anything that might hold them together against the shifting sands of time. Along the way: Lop Desert. Barren. Flat. Once the likely location of a lake, and of life more plentiful and diverse than that which remains, it became, as many other desolate locations have, ideal testing grounds for nuclear weapons. For we allow imitations of our destructive potential to proceed in the natural spaces we consider empty enough to bear the weight of our sins. As the desert will test Elif and Raoul. And his longing for some vestige of home.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Picador.

Rumors, riddles and other stories: Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist

Sublunary Editions, the humble publishing venture started by Joshua Rothes in Seattle, Washington in 2019 has, over the past few years, expanded from a simple monthly newsletter featuring new works and/or translations, to a quarterly journal called Firmament, the Empyrean series of obscure/hard-to-find literary treasures, revived, researched and restored, and a growing catalogue of original and translated novellas, stories, poems and hybrid works. Best of all, the books are all small, shorter volumes easily tucked into a bag or jacket pocket to read on the go.

Their most recent offering, Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist is a perfect example of the kind of work that sets this small publisher apart. In his tragically short life, Kleist packed a lot of living—writer, dramatist, soldier, possible spy, and during his final year, newspaperman. When he died by suicide at the age of thirty-four, he left behind a profoundly influential body of work. This collection of short stories and anecdotes originally published on the pages of the Berliner Abendblätter, were written over the course of one year, between 1810 and 1811, the span of time from the daily newsheet’s inaugural issue to their author’s death. As such they represent the first extensive collection of Kleist’s short work in English translation and an important, exciting addition to the Sublunary line-up.

Born in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1777, Kleist lived during a particularly unstable era in European history. Conflict with France was the major political concern for the German states throughout his adult years, and he served in the Prussian Army, spent some time in prison, and became an early supporter of German nationalism. He would come to be known as one of the finest literary stylists of his time, but during his lifetime he realized little of that acclaim. His daily compositions for the Abendblätter, from which the pieces in Anecdotes are drawn, provide a somewhat different insight into his gift for wit, satire and social commentary. Kleist was the editor and chief contributor to this publication and, as translator Matthew Spencer notes in his Introduction, this forum shows him to be “studiously evenhanded” taking aim at his subjects from all sides. At least while he was at its helm, the paper showed great promise. But it would not last long and might well have disappeared from memory altogether if not for a fortunate circumstance:

while Kleist began, through his plays and novellas, his posthumous ascent into the literary canon, the anecdotes remained largely underread, out of print. Much of the Abendblätter would have been lost if not for the Brothers Grimm, who collected issues specifically for the anecdotes, considering them small masterpieces of vernacular literature.

Although the critical value of these stories, witticisms and anecdotes, was debated by many, future admirers like Franz Kafka and Robert Walser, found in them an inspiring comic spirit to treasure.

The works collected in this volume run from the absurd to the tragic to the ribald, and are at times, remarkably timely. Some read as historical accounts, some as mock news items, and others as entertainments. Healthy doses of sarcasm drive home subtle and not so subtle attacks on military culture and the art of war. Folk tales and fables take clever turns. A few may miss the mark (or may have not survived the distance from their original context), but most of his tales are quite funny—even if darkly so. Where a little extra background is needed, Spencer includes brief historical or linguistic footnotes.

The pieces gathered here range from very short amusing accounts, bizarre Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not type reports, to imagined news stories and, even, in one instance, a letter to the editor (crafted by Kleist himself of course) responding to a “reported” proposal for a cannonball postal delivery service. The postal system, it seems, is a an ongoing concern going back centuries. Another anecdote echoed almost a century and a half later with the play Twelve Angry Men, is “A Strange Case in England” which records the debate among a dozen jurors in a murder case but which ends with an unexpected twist.

As much as I enjoyed the anecdotes, my favourite pieces were the last two, somewhat longer stories, “A Ghostly Apparition” and “Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music.” Both are more along the lines of gothic tales but demonstrate Kleist’s ability to tell a solid, entertaining story. While the original issues of the Abendblätter would have included more conventional “news” and “information”, the selection for this project was guided by literary interest. As such, Anecdotes provides either an excellent first introduction to Kleist or a welcome treat for English language readers who already know him well.

Anecdotes by Heinrich von Kleist is translated by Matthew Spenser and published by Sublunary Editions.

Station to station: The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig

Will we survive this century? asked the lonely reader in his train compartment. Yes, surely we will survive this one last century.

East German author Wolfgang Hilbig was not the kind of writer one associates with sunshine and bucolic scenery. His skies seem to be forever suffused with pale white winter sun, his landscapes marked by the residue of post-war industrial expansion, his urban streets draped in shadow lit only by dim pools of artificial light. His characters typically wander through this environment, never certain where they came from, where they are going and who they are meant to be—pulling and chafing against the constraints of a life they cannot fit into. Their situations and circumstances vary, but they are all lost in some kind of provisional existence.

The Interim, the most recent Hilbig release from Two Lines Press, takes, as the name implies, this sense of impermanence and makes it explicit. This novel, originally published in 2000, is, as with previous translations, rendered into fluid, incisive English by Isabel Fargo Cole. It follows the emotional and physical restlessness of C., an acclaimed writer from the GDR who is afforded the tenuous “freedom” of life in the West in the years immediately leading up to reunification. It is a time of shifting energies on both side of the Wall and C. finds himself completely adrift, caught between the crumbling social infrastructure of his homeland and the hollow promise of Western capitalism. He endeavours to perform the part of the celebrated author, often without either ease or grace, while he struggles with writer’s block and resists committing to the woman he genuinely feels he cannot live without. Trapped in a cycle of relentless anxiety, depression, and addiction, his only refuge is the train with its familiar chain of stations carrying him back and forth across the border, between an equally elusive past and future.

To be honest, I was apprehensive about this book, afraid somehow that it would be a 300-page pilgrimage through one man’s dark and decaying life, claustrophobic and bleak. And, in a way, it is most of those things except that Hilbig is an exceptional writer. Even if he is, as ever, narrating from the edge of his own existence, he has, in this novel, wisely stepped back into a more conventional third person perspective to examine his protagonist from the distance necessary to be honest—to his character and to himself. The result is an engaging narrative tracing loss, displacement, creative struggles and romantic failures washed down with too much alcohol and self-loathing. There are unpleasant moments—wandering about drunk in strange cities, taking in pay-per-view porn with an almost clinical sense of disconnect, mopping up vomit with a book from the “Holocaust & Gulag” section of his personal book collection—but the main thrust of the narrative is fueled by real human longing, stark humour, and much of the kind of mesmerizing existential questioning that drives the dreamlike, meandering narratives more typical of his work.

C. is, by the time we encounter him, living in Nuremberg. He has been in West Germany, for several years—how many, he is never sure—with an expired visa, living in a small apartment near that of his girlfriend Hedda who is losing patience with his constant insecurities and consistent unreliability. Back in Leipzig there is another girlfriend, Mona, whom he has avoided on visits home but has never properly broken off with. Both women are aware of and challenge his insistence on holding to a series of “interim solutions” as an excuse to never have to accept any tangible solution to the existential restlessness that haunts him. But there is a sense, for C. that his entire identity is false, lacking, provisional. Especially as a writer in the increasingly forced ecosystem of the literary world around him where authors use their miseries justify their writings:

in some convoluted way he believed in the creative power of tormenting experiences (while Hedda disputed it, claim­ing that pain merely silenced people), and he’d always sus­pected himself of lacking that experience. – In fact he’d always written offhandedly, looking away from his words, which had flowed from him effortlessly. In his life he’d never done a stroke of real work, he’d done everything in passing, for the interim, as it were. The real thing is yet to come, he’d always thought, as though he had infinite time at his disposal. Now he was pushing fifty—just three years left to go—it was high time for the “real thing”…and suddenly nothing was coming at all!

If The Interim never expanded its focus beyond C.’s self-recriminations, sodden or sober, it would run the risk of becoming weighed down by its own protagonist, spinning through a circuitous, non-chronological narrative that turns in on itself to travel wide but get nowhere. But C.’s inability to find himself reflected in his own country’s marginal, backward declining state, or the West’s flashy commercialized culture of consumption, allows Hilbig to make sharp, cynical observations on the state of the world as the twentieth century is nearing its end. A century of lies, as C. describes it. Technology has fostered progress and destruction, looking back to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Gulag, and ahead to the escalation of depersonalization and commercialism under the force of Capitalism. Is the latter a saviour from the godlessness of the former or simply a new God? C. is not so sure as, from the window of a West German train, he observes cars racing along the autobahn:

Disciplined and united in close-massed squadrons, united for one minute, identical lobotomized brows behind the windshields, bodies perching their death-packed asses on a power that wasn’t theirs, fused to a steering wheel that mastered their fists, they’d flee onward as if set in motion by the lash of a great herd-driver’s whip. And that great shepherd was Capital…he said to himself each time he looked out the window of the train at the inter­twined chains of dimmed headlights, a light-suffused gas-cloud over them, a cloud of sweet Arabian perfumes as of burning pipelines, a cloud of colored miasmas that drifted along with them as they rushed down the course in formation, gigantic glittering automobile hives, and the shepherd whipped them on from one gas station to the next, where they filled themselves with their manna, tanked up on their divine gas. – Stick it to them! cried the shepherd, their God, who had long since grown weary of his flock.

If C. can never quite decide which side of the border he belongs to, within West Germany itself he is equally unsettled. He moves several times and travels for readings, tracing a network of cities through their train stations, their hotels and their seedy bars. He convinces himself that Hedda is the reason he stays at all, but he cannot understand why he seems destined to sabotage what they have. Whether it is a fear of failure or a fear of commitment, Hedda is certain that the problem, not only in their relationship but in his inability to write, lies in an unwillingness to address his childhood fears.

One of the later sections of The Interim takes C. back to memories of his childhood and youth, to an early secret love of writing through his lonely apprenticeship in a machine shop. His writing remains a hidden activity for many years, while conflicts between what he longs to be and what others expect him to be grows wider, more fraught, echoing themes that course through the pages of Hilbig’s strange and wonderful novellas. This book is essentially about becoming a writer and coming apart as a writer, while clinging to a transitional existence during a transitional time in history. In turning C.’s trauma into literature, Hilbig accomplishes the one thing the novel’s protagonist is presently unable to do.I have read, and written about, almost all of Hilbig’s work translated to date and have had the opportunity to discuss it at length with Isabel Fargo Cole who has done so much to help bring his writings to an English language audience. I loved this book. But I am not certain if I would recommend it as an introduction to his idiosyncratic writing. I feel somehow that if one has read and enjoyed other titles, especially Tidings of the Trees, Old Rendering Plant and his short story collection, Sleep of the Righteous, The Interim will feel like an opportunity to see the “Hilbig protagonist” and his creator in what might be his most true-to-life work—gritty at times, melancholy and dark, but filled with powerful language and insightful observations. Be warned, though, C. is an anti-hero unlikely to find redemption or accept it if offered.

The Interim by Wolfgang Hilbig is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press.

Eating Cheaply: The Cheap Eaters by Thomas Bernhard

A new edition of a lesser-known Thomas Bernhard novel is, for those of us who collect his varied works, a reason to be excited. Originally published as  Die Billigesser in 1980, The Cheap-Eaters rests more than midway through the Austrian writer’s career, and offers another nourishing helping of his idiosyncratic style of long-winded, circuitous, single-paragraphed fictional expositions of human eccentricity. Now in a fresh new translation by Bernhard enthusiast Douglas Robertson, Spurl Editions has served up this novel, or novella, in a handsome, nearly pocket-sized volume—a virtual literary take-away, the perfect companion for, say, a saunter to a nearby park for a little open air reading in these days of pandemic defined recreation.

Coincidentally, it is a walk to a park that stands for Koller, the protagonist of The Cheap-Eaters, as the single most important factor leading to the discovery and facilitation of his life’s work. As our unnamed narrator, an old school friend, explains at painstaking length, his, Koller’s, chance divergence from the park that was his usual destination to another where he encountered Weller, an industrial glassmaker, and his dog was a pivotal event. A most fortunate misfortune. The dog bit Koller’s leg which in turn had to be amputated, and this injury not only provided, via a lawsuit, a guaranteed income for life, but it also caused him to happen upon the cheap-eaters when, after his release from the hospital, he stopped into the Vienna Public Kitchen, or VPK. The four regular diners welcomed him, one-legged and with crutches, into their fraternity and over time they became the subjects of what was soon to become his obsession: his so-called Physiognomy.

For years he had fraternized with the cheap-eaters and had eaten cheaply with the cheap-eaters, had eaten more cheaply with the cheap-eaters than anywhere else and actually he had never eaten both as cheaply and as well anywhere else, for in the VPK he, Koller, had always eaten cheaply and well and he had never yet been able to eat both more cheaply and better anywhere else. He said that he actually owed to the VPK nothing less than the fact that he was still alive today; nothing less actually than the fact that I still exist! he had once exclaimed in my presence, and nothing less than the fact that he had made it through so many appalling Viennese years…

More than a place to partake of the cheapest of the available cheap meals with such suitable companions, Koller credits the VPK with his bodily existence, and more critically, his very intellectual existence.

At the point in time when our narrator is winding and unwinding his long-winded account of his somewhat repellent and yet somehow appealing friend, this friend, Koller, has already devoted himself to his particular studies for sixteen years. He is now, he says, ready to begin to unveil his findings. It is, of course, perfectly fitting that a Bernhardian hero should be consumed with an appropriately outdated pseudoscience like physiognomy, the supposed practice of determining a person’s personality from their external appearance, especially facial characteristics. Koller speaks of his Physiognomy with reverence; he approaches it, as one would expect, from the altitude of his superior intellectual energies, devoting his full attention to understanding it through careful study of his constant dining companions.

If The Cheap-Eaters purports itself to be a novel about the four men who gather together, with Koller, to eat cheaply at the VPK, it is, yet it is more explicitly an expose of Koller’s own eccentricities as recounted by a narrator whose own attraction to his subject is as curious and questionable as Koller himself. And given the way our one-legged hero is portrayed, one might even suggest that the cheap-eaters who so dominate his thoughts are remarkably normal by comparison. But then, this is Bernhard and would one expect anything less?

He had always felt sorry for so-called healthy people because in his view they never emerged from the swampy lowlands of absolute intellectual torpor and moreover were condemned to languish all their lives in this brutish intellectual torpor of theirs, no matter who they were and no matter what they did, and he despised them quite openly and invariably seemed to derive a certain enjoyment from this contempt of his for these miserable, good-for-nothing, mind-damaging creatures as he had actually once described them to me verbatim.

Anyone familiar with Bernhard in his longer form work, will not be surprised to find that the narrative progresses in a doubly-, sometimes triply-nested and convoluted fashion, treading over the same well-travelled ground repeatedly, slowly adding new details and bits of commentary along the way. Robertson’s translation handles this labyrinthine movement nicely. And, of course, all this wandering is rewarded as everything begins to take shape, the cheap-eaters are finally given individual dimension, and then—well, you have to read it yourself to find out how the story concludes.

I will say that The Cheap-Eaters by Thomas Bernhard, translated from the German by Douglas Robertson and published by Spurl Editions, is a welcome addition to my own curious and eclectic collection of Bernhard’s work.

The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Tell stories and let stories be told: Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz

Venturing into the fictional territory defined by Swiss writer Klaus Merz, one immediately notices the lightness of his imagery and the marked economy of his language. His narratives are slowly and carefully crafted, allowed to form one brushstroke at a time. Anchored in a lush landscape mirroring his native canton of Aargau in northern Switzerland, his characters and the lives they live are at once simple and exceptional. Sensitively translated from the German by Tess Lewis, the present volume, Stigmata of Bliss, gathers together three of Merz’s best known novellas, and, as such, offers a fine introduction to his distinctive restrained poetic prose.

The collection begins with Jacob Asleep (Jakob schläft). Originally published in 1997 with the curious subtitle Eigentlich ein Roman—Actually a Novel—this tale of an ill-starred but strangely resilient family won several prominent awards including the Hermann Hesse Prize for Literature. The story opens at the graveside of the eponymous Jacob, the narrator’s older brother, who died at birth and as such was officially named “Child Renz”. Although he is gone, in the heart and imagination of the protagonist, Jacob is ever present as a sleeping angel of sorts to be called upon in times of need. And there will be plenty of those.

The narrator is, from an early age, surrounded by eccentricity and illness. A younger brother, Sunny, is born with hydrocephalus; his father, a baker, develops epilepsy; and his mother grows increasingly despondent as the years pass. His grandfather takes a turn at raising birds and then fish before turning with passionate intensity to beekeeping, while his grandmother becomes a faith healer who is undeterred by any apparent lack of response to her charms. Finally, an uncle, Franz, is a reckless daredevil with an unfettered lust for adventure that takes him, fatefully, to Alaska. But, ever the pragmatist, our hero recounts his family’s tragedies and joys with calm resolve and no small measure of peculiar pride:

In our family, illness had priority over all else. After Grandmother walked barefoot through the snow in her religious frenzy and, weightless as old, brittle leaves, was carried out of the house with the first spring storms, my brother was once again the most seriously ill member of the family, so ill that people gladly came often to visit him. Out on the street, everyone, young and old, turned to stare. They tripped over kerbstones, caught their trousers and skirts on garden fences and knocked their gaping heads on telegraph poles when I pushed him along the road in his high-wheeled cart.

There were only a few television shows at the time and the tabloids were still restrained, so, live and in real time, we satisfied some of the local craving for entertainment.

Given the premise of this novella, there could easily be a tendency to slip into pathos, but such is not the case. The spare prose, vivid images filtered through memory, and the charismatic narrative voice facilitate smooth transitions between scenes of boyish bliss and accounts of loss and pain, between times of happiness and hardship. No moment is oversold. Only the most essential details are offered, often indirectly, set up in such a manner that ultimately a simple sentence is left to carry the weight of all that has been left unspoken. One of the most powerful episodes in the text occurs after the narrator and his father pick up his mother after a stay at a sanatorium. Nothing is explicitly said of her experience. It is not necessary:

The first thing Mother did at home was to get rid of the electric blanket that had always warmed her bed. And she adamantly refused to let us replace it with a better one.

For fear of electric shocks.

What remains, at the end of this finely honed tale, is a sense of the light that lingers in the memory assuring that in a life filled with many hardships, the darkness is not denied but it need not dominate.

*

The second novella, A Man’s Fate (LOS. Eine Erzählung,2005), feels, perhaps, denser and heavier in tone. The style is still spare, but here the third person narrative takes the reader deep into the consciousness of a man, Thaler, who is at a crossroad in his life. A teacher, married with children, he is feeling cramped and constrained. He heads to the mountains hoping a hike will help clear his mind, allow him to figure out what he wants. Armed with his favourite snack—honey and lemons—he travels by train, on his way to a cabin where he plans to spend the night. At the same time his thoughts travel back, digging through his earlier adventures and affairs.

Thaler is a troubled man, weighed down by a certain nostalgia for his youth and a frustration with his present circumstances. Yet it is not clear what it is that he feels he has lost or what potentials he yearns for. The memories he keeps rifling through do not seem that exciting—but, then, mid-life tinges the past with regrets and what-if’s. His restlessness is echoed by the train:

His train gathers speed. Nowhere does he feel as secure as in a train. Surrounded only by chance companions. He finds them to be the most reliable and he feels closest to them.

Travelling divests one. Like a lover. Like a lover who leaves unnoticed after making  love to return to her own life, having washed up only cursorily yet unhurt. And safe elsewhere.

Thaler’s thoughts regularly swing back to women, leaving little wonder that his marriage is in trouble. He seems indifferent to his wife and children. However, there is, of course, more going on, and a chance mishap will upend everything.

*

The final novella in this volume, The Argentine (Der Argentinier. Novelle, 2009) is an account of the life of the colourful “Argentine”, a man who, in his youth, left Switzerland for a life of adventure in the New World. In Argentina he became, so he claimed, a gaucho and a celebrated dancer. Yet, once the desire to escape cooled, he returned to Europe, married his sweetheart, Amelie, and devoted himself to teaching. But he maintained a larger-than-life aura, his tales fueling his own mythology and his assorted wisdoms enlightening both his family and generations of students.

The Argentine’s story, however, is not told directly. It is recounted by his granddaughter Lena to a primary-school friend, the narrator, during a gathering of former classmates. His own memories and observations, as well as brief conversations about his and Lena’s present lives, filter into the narrative which continually circles back story of the Argentine, or simply “Grandfather” as he is called. The result is a portrait conveyed in segments, coloured with multilayered memories. A story within a story within a story and at the centre one remarkable man.

After his return, Grandfather created a different climate in each of his classrooms: an African climate in one, icebergs as in Patagonia in another or the blooming spring of the Wachau Valley in another. He wanted his students to be prepared for any circumstances when they had to face reality—actual or perceived—whether at home, out shopping, before a screen, in Shanghai or in bed. They should have emergency resources that come from worlds described or worlds still waiting to be described. With such inner resources, they will never die alone or of hunger, he always said.

Although published separately, there is a wholeness that can be found in reading these three novellas together. The same spareness marks each one, though the narratives have a different texture and energy. No piece extends beyond 60 pages (including the drawings by Heinz Egger that grace the text), but each offers a rewarding and intimate experience that lingers long after the reading has ended.

Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz is translated by Tess Lewis and published by Seagull Books.

Dark folksongs for a new millennium: I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig

we don’t know each other yet. I don’t even know
myself. every morning I get up and I don’t have a clue:
is it me, Almut? Ulrike? just who was that child under
its mother’s skirts? I am the mother, I am the daughter
I am the shadow for you to hide beneath

No question here. This is German poet Ulrike Almut Sandig, an artist for whom performance and collaboration—with other poets, musicians and filmmakers—is very important. She is a literary multi-instrumentalist and that sensibility colours her very distinctive poetry. From the outset, her approach was less than conventional. She began by pasting her poems to lampposts and distributing them as flyers and free postcards—reaching out to those resistant to poetry by making it readily accessible through the use of familiar images, comforting rhythms and experimental presentation. Yet, like the traditional folktales from which she derives so much of her inspiration, Sandig’s simple, fanciful poems hide a darkly serious heart. Beneath the allure and beauty of her language, her work boldly addresses some of the most important political issues of the day.

The whimsically titled I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other is her second collection to be released in English translation, following 2018’s much more modestly named Thick Of It. Both works are translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books. The title not only reflects the names of the sections within the book, but is contained and echoed in a couple of pieces. As with her earlier volume, tracks and traces wind their way through her poetry, sowing connections, entertaining dialogue, evoking natural and fantastic elements, and openly comment on modern warfare, the misuse of science, the fate of migrants, and the rise of Right Wing sentiments. She is like a bright radical spirit emerging from a world of shadowy forests and bleak fairy tales.

Compared to Thick of It (reviewed here) which was originally published in German in 2011, I am A Field which originally appeared five years later (2016) is a much more complex and unapologetically political exercise. ballad of the abolition of night (Sandig’s titles are always presented in bold either as headers or within the text—a convention I will hold to here) bluntly depicts instances of torture reported in American “Black Sites” or detainee camps, each verse beginning with the refrain

underneath the utterly cloudless sky
of a state lagging somewhat behind
on the historical timeline of our kind
in a camp for detainees

and each situation, so uncomfortably familiar from the news, loses none of its horror in poetic form.

The fate of refugees fleeing twenty-first century conflict is another theme that reappears several times throughout. This is captured with particular power in almost thirteen questions about Idomeni, 2016 AD. Based on an article about an expanding community of migrants trapped on the Greek border, it begins:

and what if love is not the answer after all?
and what if that dove doesn’t go out and
fetch the first leaf it finds and bring it
back as a sign: land in sight? and what if
there’s no daylight on the waters ahead
but instead just women and children
sinking? and what if there’s not a single
jot of good Deutsch to be found in this
Land of mine, but tarred and feathered
pity as a hyperlink, until I go and forget
my own language too?

Unforgiving in its sentiment, the poem highlights apathy and an unwillingness to engage with the plight of the migrants one way or another, ending with reference to the gorier original version of Cinderella:

coocoo, coocoo Idomeni, there’s blood in
the shoe. I wash my hands in the rain.

At the end of the day, there’s no question who will be disfigured and who will feign innocence.

As in Sandig’s earlier work, European folklore is an important influence—she reimagines nursery rhymes and fairy tales and, along with a fondness for lowercase letters and limited punctuation, this lends a magical atmosphere to her poems. However, not unlike the tradition she is calling on, these elements often serve as the perfect vehicles to explore the brutality of human nature. In I Am a Field, this aspect is pronounced with the inclusion of the “Grimm” cycle which is explicitly based on tales from The Children’s and Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unsanitized original versions, could be gruesome and unsettling to say the least. In Fitcher’s Bird, for example, she gives poetic voice to the young woman who disguises herself to rescue and reanimate her older sisters who’ve been murdered and dismembered by an evil sorcerer:

I dipped myself in
a barrel of honey
slit open the bed and
rolled in the feathers.
now I am an odd
bird, nobody
knows me, I
scarcely know
myself. a globe is
stuck in my throat
I can’t get it down:
a monstrous great
round chamber
of wonders racing
through the dark.

Yet, in rescuing her sisters, the narrator is extending her intention to heal all who have been butchered. Other poems in this cycle evoke drone warfare, IS converts, and the reality of life for migrants in Germany and other contemporary realities. In her generous end notes which provide basic background, as needed, to the political and/or lyrical inspiration of many of the pieces, translator Karen Leeder indicates that knowledge of the fairy tales is not necessary to appreciate the Grimm poems, but that German readers might identify intertextual phrases and references even if their origins might not be immediately recognized. And since many of the stories may be lesser known, her short notes offer a little guidance to any interested reader who wishes to know more. She  adds:

The German word “Grimm” also, however, means rage: a rage that permeates the cycle as a reaction to the darkness in the collective German consciousness.

I would suggest that some of that rage underscores much of the collection as a whole, as an invigorating energy that refuses to be silenced. There is beauty and ugliness here, balanced against anger and hope: a collection as strange and strangely intriguing as its wonderfully eccentric title.

I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated from the German by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Addressing a captive audience: A Slap in the Face by Abbas Khider

Set in the earliest years of the twenty-first century, Abbas Khider’s A Slap in the Face confronts the complicated realities of the mass migration driven by conflict, poverty and the hope for a better life that has become such a definitive and disruptive feature of this new century. The novel opens with an actual slap across the face. The narrator, Karim, a young Iraqi refugee facing deportation from Germany, has accosted his caseworker in her office and taped her to her chair. Frustrated, anxious and unable to consider returning to his home country, what he really wants to do is force her to listen. Karim rolls himself a joint and launches into his story. Bound and silenced, Frau Schulz, as a representative of a dispassionate bureaucratic system, will now have no alternative but to hear him out:

Here you are. Helpless. All trussed up like a parcel. Sitting there in your expensive black leather chair. You were a goddess, a force of nature, exercising your authority over other people. I was at your mercy, but like a mythical hero I have risen up and stormed Olympus. And soon I’ll leave you to your tiny pen-pusher’s office again. You’ll be left sitting here, a lonely as a creator whose creatures have forgotten him. A god without believers doesn’t exist. That’s true of goddesses too. I’ll leave you behind and go away to a distant land.

What unfolds is one very human account of the complicated forces that can drive one man to leave his home and family behind, taking on, at great cost and risks, with uncertain hopes of success, a flight to a new land, together with a broader portrait of the haphazard expat communities that form in the limbo of an asylum system that can be painfully slow and impersonal. It is a story Khider is well suited to tell. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he was a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. Upon his release in 1996, he fled, making his way through a number of countries before landing in Germany where has been living since 2000. Writing in German, A Slap in the Face (originally published as Ohrfeige; translated by Simon Pare) is his fourth novel.

Karim’s intended destination upon setting out from Baghdad is Paris where he has a relative, but in submitting to the whims of people smugglers, he finds himself dropped off on a rural road in Germany in the dead of winter. He manages to make his way to a train station where he is immediately picked up and placed in a windowless cell in Dachau. In retrospect he is relieved that he naively does not know the association of that location beforehand. He is terrified enough. From that point, he is funnelled into the confusing, often tedious, administrative  system that will determine his fate, ultimately ending up in a small Bavarian town. Here he will build connections with a small group of fellow Iraqis, each carrying their own pasts and burdens that remain unshared. They exist as loose association of men bound by common country of origin, amid a fractious community of other refugees.

Woven into his account of the trials and tribulations that arise as he navigates the complicated asylum application process, periodically reminding Frau Schulz where she has played a role, Karim shares childhood losses and adult longings. Despite his momentary position of power, he comes across as a vulnerable figure, focused and determined but cautious to try to play by the rules. When he reveals the deep secret that lies beneath his initial desperation to head to Europe—an unexpected circumstance that I personally connected with in a way others might not—the space he occupies, slightly offside that of his peers makes perfect sense. He has a very unique reason to want to stay—one he has revealed to no one, least of all the officials at his asylum hearing.

However, 9/11 and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq upends his dreams. Everything changes almost instantly:

From that accursed day onwards, the main term used to describe us Arabs in Germany was ‘suspicious’. I would never have thought that terrorists hiding in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains could, by their attacks in the United States, plunge my life in the Bavarian town of Niederhofen into such disarray. That’s what you call globalization.

Caught up in the confusion of this rapidly changing atmosphere, Karim and his friends struggle with conflicted emotions as they watch broadcasts of the destruction being wrought on their homeland and worry about the safety of their families. Yet around them, fundamentalist passions rise among some, fueling bitter divisions within the expat community itself and further anxiety among the German population. But, once Saddam Hussein is neutralized, Karim finds that his contrived claim for refugee status no longer carries any weight, and his asylum status is revoked, but going back is not an option. He has too much invested in his hopes for a better—even normal—future. So with Frau Schulz as his silent witness, he is unburdening himself as he prepares to take flight again after three years in Germany.

A Slap on the Face offers a look at the reality of arriving in a strange land with little more than the hope for a better future. It does not glamourize the experience. The administrative roadblocks, the uncertainties, the poverty, the prejudice, the appeal of drugs or petty crime for some, and the loneliness or isolation for others all ring true. Karim’s story tumbles out—part confession, part diatribe—fueled by the frequent joints he rolls and his controllled contempt for Frau Schulz and the system she represents that has so heartlessly decided that his years of waiting and working hard mean nothing. It’s difficult not to like Karim, to feel his frustrations, and it is this connection that lends his narrative a such compelling, earnest urgency.

A Slap on the Face by Abbas Khider is translated by Simon Pare and published by Seagull Books.

Searching for a future in a devastated landscape: Invitation to the Bold of Heart by Dorothee Ellmiger

There were no maps, no more accurate maps for the northern coal district. It was absent on all the plans, it was one large absence, so to speak, the course of the roads had long since slightly shifted, hills diminished, towns abolished.

Beneath the surface of a once prosperous coal mining district, flames from a fire in the tunnels has been smouldering for decades; above, the land has largely been laid to waste. Pit frames dot the horizon while in some places the land has caved in, sometimes taking livestock or an unfortunate human resident with it. Towns stand nearly abandoned, home to only the stubborn and the eccentric who have held fast. In one such community, two young women—daughters of the police commander and the last remaining youth—have never known anything but this desolate territory. It is their sole inheritance, all they have to look forward to. Their future is bleak, but they are determined to salvage some sense of optimism.

For Margarete and Fritzi, the protagonists of Swiss writer Dorothee  Elmiger’s award winning debut Invitation to the Bold of Heart, an old map indicating that a long-forgotten river once flowed through the region offers a spark of hope that drives a determined search for evidence that it still exists somewhere—even if it has temporarily disappeared below ground. If they can locate this elusive Buenaventura River, they believe they may be able to begin to make sense of a past, including their own family history, that no one wants to talk about and create a base from which they can start to look forward on their own terms. It’s an ambitious and enormous goal.

Bookish and studious by nature, Margarete is the official archivist. She devours the books she finds in the apartment above the police station where she and her sister live with their father. Natural history, science, and literature. On a Remington typewriter lifted from one of the policemen she types her account and makes notes of details that seem relevant. Facts about rivers and deserts, about mines and mining appear and reappear throughout. Moodier and more carefree, Fritzi makes little direct contribution to the narrative. She is the restless explorer. What she adds, however, through her reported observations is thoughtful and wise, such as this reflection on their surroundings:

For a long time, she said, I have been trying to comprehend the landscape here. She said, I look at the pit frames rising up to the sky, and I look at the railway lines running deeper and deeper into the ground because they’re sinking and sinking. I look at the sky, because the sky might also be symptomatic, the sky is also part of this landscape. I count, she said, I count the colours; my vocabulary is exhausted after brown, olive and black, and when I think about it those are all the colours that are here.

Of course, to affect a thorough search both girls have to head out, together or apart, on foot, by motorcycle or car, and eventually, in the company of a horse named Bataille that Fritizi finds and brings home. Meanwhile, the policemen who have little need to patrol, spend most of their time glued to the television set, hardly noticing the sisters’ comings and goings.

Characterized by a spare disjointed style, the novel most often resembles an attempt at record-keeping, a report for a future that is vague and uncertain, set in a surreally dystopic present that seems willfully disconnected from its own past, or simply exhausted by the weight of the space it occupies. The adults are either oddly apathetic or completely absent, like their mother who holds an almost mythological place in their imaginations. A female Hemingway-like character, she smoked cigarettes, cut her hair short, and one day simply drove off into the distance. Together they fantasize a series of daring adventures for her. On the other hand, they typically refer to their father as simply Heribert Stein or H. Stein, reflecting a relationship that seems cool, even antagonistic.

The fractured, loose-limbed narrative is, at one level, rather unsettling. It is, not unlike the sisters own place in the world—ungrounded, suspended somewhere in a geological timeline between oceans and deserts. They have facts and coordinates and maps, but no direct knowledge beyond the borders of the territory they’ve always lived in. One has the sense it has been intentionally cut off, guarded to keep outsiders at bay. This uncertainty which reflects the sisters’ own isolation is never resolved. A wealth of intertextual references woven freely into the text further offset the environment of the novel. It is a daring approach and, for the most part, very effective. Yet, in the innovative voice of Invitation to the Bold of Heart, one in which the narrative often appears to wander, ramble and repeat, pulling in facts drawn from a variety of interconnected sources, one can hear the qualities that Elmiger will develop and refine in her more mature and startlingly impressive second novel, Shift Sleepers. Without question, she is an author to watch closely.

Invitation to the Bold of Heart, by Dorthee Elmiger, is translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire and published by Seagull Books.